Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Terror House (1972)

Director: Bud Townsend                              Writer: Allen Actor
Film Score: Bill Marx                                    Cinematography: John McNichol
Starring: Linda Gillen, John Neilson, Mary Jackson and Margaret Avery

It’s incredibly easy to knock independent seventies films not only for their generally poor acting and low production values, which many of them do have, but also for the poor state of existing prints, something not their fault. There are times, however, they can be surprising, and Terror House from 1972 is a case in point. Alternately titled The Terror at Red Wolf Inn or The Folks at Red Wolf Inn, the picture was something of a precursor to Eating Raul, which came out over a decade later. Not quite tongue-in-cheek, it nevertheless has a certain charm about it that is wholly lacking in similar types of horror films today. Bud Townsend had been a television director in the early sixties, and filmed a few low-budget horror films and soft-core porn films in the seventies, but was out of the business by the middle of the following decade. His visual style, it must be said, is certainly distinctive and he makes good use of camera effects and low lighting. If there’s a weak spot--aside from the obvious--it’s the music by Bill Marx who did much better work in the Blacula sequel. The screenplay, which isn’t horrible, was penned by associate producer Allen Actor, who would write only one more in his career.

The film begins on a nondescript college campus with the naïve Linda Gillen staying at the dorms while everyone else leaves for spring break. Looking through the mail she notices a letter offering her a free vacation at a resort run by Mary Jackson and Arthur Space. At first skeptical, she eventually agrees to go because it’s clear she has never won anything in her life and is not about to let this go by. Whisked to the airport by a private driver, she doesn’t have the opportunity to call her mother to let her know where she’ll be. She’s picked up at the airport by John Neilson, the grandson of the owners. He’s a good-looking twenty-something who behaves a little oddly, and is called “Baby John” to boot. But with two other women at the inn, Margaret Avery and Janet Wood, she’s momentarily reassured, even though the phone doesn’t work. The first scene at the inn is a masterpiece of black comedy as Mary Jackson serves a big platter of ribs--smaller than a cow but bigger than a pig--and the subsequent lingering close ups of everyone around the table cramming their faces with the meat and moaning like a porno film while they eat what one suspects is human flesh, is delightfully effective.

A terrific dream sequence by Gillen that underscores the theme of gluttony is followed by her accidentally meeting Neilson coming out of the walk-in refrigerator with a knife. But she falls in love with him anyway, and all the time Jackson keeps feeding the girls “filet” to fatten them up for when it will be their turn to provide the delicious repast for the next set of visitors. While there is some bad acting, primarily from Avery and Wood, Linda Gillen is actually very good in the role and conveys a convincing innocence. She’s beautiful and has a fetching smile, and her function in the story as the focal point which keeps the audience at ease while things devolve around her is so well done that it’s difficult to think of an actress who could have played the role any better. John Neilson’s attempt at an even more repressed version of Norman Bates doesn’t really come off, but he definitely has his moments and doesn’t overact the way a lot of actors would approach his role today. Mary Jackson is the real pro, however. Best known for her role as one of the eccentric Baldwin sisters on The Waltons, she looks as if she came straight out of a seventies revival of Arsenic and Old Lace and adds a lot of what there is to like about the film.

As a black comedy the film works surprisingly well. The scenes of outright horror are particularly good, utilizing striking music and slow-motion to emphasize the terror. At the same time there are tremendously frightening inserts that Townsend cuts into the montages to amplify the effect. Overall, however, the emphasis is on the humor generated from the almost sexual obsession with eating and the way that Townsend films it. In his book on seventies horror films, John Kenneth Muir, puts it perfectly when he says, “It is impossible not to note how central a concern is ‘eating’ in this group, thanks to Townsend’s insistence on showing actors shoveling food into their mouths and smacking their lips. It is an opera of chewing and crunching rapture, almost a sexual orgasm, as the cast of characters fill their cheeks, masticate, sigh, and pause to fill up on drink.” Though it’s decidedly a low-budget effort, Terror House has a unique directorial vision and is an enjoyable seventies horror comedy.

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